As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
Today, Kelly Dwyer revisits Joakim Noah making a meal out of Paul Pierce during the first round of the 2009 Eastern Conference playoffs.
If you stick with the game long enough, and your team long enough, you’re usually rewarded with a couple of different generations’ worth of highlights. If your fandom sustains, the cookin’ ain’t greasy and your squad's on the right side of both luck and execution, the highlights can play out in varying, wonderful contexts.
Watching Michael Jordan win a couple of Slam Dunk Contests was thrilling in the moment, but they were taken in by a kid who could barely write in cursive at the time. Those 3.9 seconds that John Paxson left on the clock in Phoenix were fretted over by a kid still learning his way around a guitar fretboard. Championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998 were celebrated with fist-pumps and laps around the basement den by a young adult who was just starting to figure out that he wouldn’t mind writing about this game for the rest of his life.
Jordan retires, families grow old and often apart, and the kid’s got to get his stuff together. The Chicago Bulls have to rebuild, and they’ll pay the price for most of the next decade. You’re now legally allowed to buy beer, and your gut pays the price for most of the next decade. You get a girl, she comes with some kids, and you get a place of your own.
And, if you’re lucky, you once again get a team and player of your own. Joakim Noah, for me, is that player. And he plays on my team. I’m very lucky.
It wasn’t always easy for me, my team, and Joakim Noah. He was drafted to a Bulls team in 2007 that had made the second round of the playoffs the year before, taken in the lottery as a response to Isiah Thomas’ obsession with Chicago native Eddy Curry. What seemed like the perfect rookie slot on an up-and-coming team turned into an outright nightmare in 2007-08, though, as the Bulls performed terribly on both ends, and Noah was treated as a whipping boy of sorts after he chided some laughing veterans on the Bulls bench during a loss (nothing wrong with that) and argued with respected Bulls assistant Ron Adams (nothing cool about that).
The bad-luck streak in dancing school changed a bit as the year moved along. The Bulls were somehow able to find a taker for Ben Wallace’s contract in a trade, which gave Joakim a proper mentor in Brad Miller while afforded starting status to Noah, who, even with his rookie quirks, was still outplaying the indifferent Wallace. Then the Bulls shot up eight slots in the 2008 lottery, allowing them to draft Chicago native Derrick Rose with the top overall selection in that year’s draft. The team also hired Vinny Del Negro to coach, because you can’t win ‘em all.
The next season was designed as a holding pattern as the team celebrated backing into a franchise player in Rose, who won the Rookie of the Year that season. Chicago finished at .500, understandable for a young team still figuring things out, but possibly an underachievement considering the level of talent and sound veteran helpers (Miller, John Salmons and Ben Gordon and don’t laugh they were actually pretty good then) the rotation boasted. By the time the team hit the first round of the playoffs, they were expected to act as a road bump of sorts for the defending champion Boston Celtics, even if the C’s were working without Kevin Garnett.
Rose and the Bulls caught a still-sleeping Boston squad on the first matinee game of the 2009 playoffs, with the rookie scoring 36 points to go along with 11 assists, and Noah contributing 17 boards and three blocks. The younger Bulls lost the next game, just barely, but after a blowout Boston win in Game 3, things seemed to have righted themselves.
Chicago roared back to take Game 4, though, in a double-overtime battle. Boston hung on to win a disputed Game 5 at home, in yet another overtime classic. With Game 6 pitched back in Chicago, with the Bulls’ backs pushed up against the proverbial wall, Joakim Noah helped me make some memories of my own:
I didn’t see this one in my parents’ basement, or in a living room I had to share. This was in my house, my living room, on my TV, with my Latrell Sprewell-styled air punches thrown and me not giving a rat’s ass if I woke up my kids who were trying to sleep in the next room.
My favorite player on my team, going nearly coast-to-coast and fouling out the other team’s best player along the way. Putting these Bulls up three points (after the foul shot) in triple overtime and forcing Celtics coach and Maywood, Ill., native Doc Rivers into a state of despair.
This is my memory, something I’ll never forget, and something Joakim Noah was perfectly suited for. This was a center going 79 feet after slapping a steal away from a swingman. This was a center who in no way resembled the mythical “low-post scorer that we can dump the ball into” that my father continually asked me if it was possible to deal for. This was a guy who worked his way through the lows of 2007-08, coincidentally being suspended by the team on the same day of the lowest point of my professional career, who later developed into my absolute favorite type of player — a slick-passing big man who knows how to move his feet.
Chicago went on to lose the series two days later, and turned in yet another .500 effort and first-round exit next season. Cap space and Tom Thibodeau resulted in Chicago managing the league’s best record over the next two seasons, but injury and LeBron James denied the Bulls a chance at the title. The last two seasons have been spent in purgatory while Rose recovered from two different severe knee injuries, possibly placing undue stress on the heretofore indefatigable Noah, who will turn 30 midway through 2014-15.
The Bulls restocked again over the summer, Rose is healthy again, and the team figures to be one of the NBA's more intriguing outfits heading into next season. If things go wonderfully, they could make it past LeBron, into those Finals, and bring a title back home to Chicago. Because I’ve been blessed in my employment, I’ll be there to watch it happen in person.
I’m glad I didn’t go to the United Center to cover Game 6 of the first-round match-up between Chicago and Boston in 2009, though. I’m glad I got to celebrate that moment in my own, grown, way.
By acting like a giddy child all over again.
More from BDL's Dunk History series:
• John Starks, the Chicago Bulls and 'The Dunk'
• Tom Chambers rising like a Phoenix and taking orbit as a Sun
• Taj Gibson starts the break, then breaks Dwyane Wade
• Baron Davis unloads on Andrei Kirilenko, moves beyond belief
• Michael Jordan embarrasses, like, all of the Knicks
• The joy of hearing Scottie Pippen posterize Patrick Ewing
More NBA coverage:
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- Derrick Rose
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